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East Fortune celebrates R34 centenary


A letter written 100 years ago and dropped over Nova Scotia from the R34 airship during its record-breaking double trans-Atlantic crossing will go on display at the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, East Lothian on Tuesday 2 July, the centenary of the R34’s departure from its East Fortune base.

The R34 airship at its East Fortune base. Photo: NMS

 The R34’s epic journey, which took place just a few weeks after Alcock and Brown’s record-breaking west-east Atlantic flight, was the first ever return flight across the Atlantic and the first east-west crossing by air. Its trip also involved the first arrival in the USA by air when Major Pritchard parachuted from the airship to take charge of the hundreds of ground crew required, as well as the world’s first human and feline trans-Atlantic aerial stowaways, namely Newcastle man William Ballantyne and Wopsie the cat.

The letter, which was recently acquired by National Museums Scotland, was written by the Reverend George Davys Jones who worked as a chaplain at RAF East Fortune. He gave it to the R34 crew to post to his sister in Bournemouth once the airship had reached the USA. It was dropped from the airship over Nova Scotia on 5 July, discovered by Milton Weldon on 8 November at Selmah, Hants County, forwarded to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then posted back to England where it arrived later that month. The letter describes the sense of excitement about the R34’s forthcoming journey, explaining that the whole station was required to guide the massive airship out of its shed ahead of its record-breaking flight.

The 634ft-long R34 was stationed at East Fortune, now home to the National Museum of Flight but which started out as a Royal Naval Air Station. HMA R34 arrived at the East Lothian base in May 1919. It had been constructed at the William Beardmore factory at Inchinnan near Glasgow but was completed too late to see active service, making one operational voyage over the Baltic Sea as part of a show of strength in advance of the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Sadly, the R34 was scrapped in 1921 following an accident in high winds but its trans-Atlantic journey remains one of Scotland’s most fascinating aerial adventures.

Jones’ letter will be displayed until 31 October 2019 in the National Museum of Flight’s Fortunes of War gallery, which explains the fascinating history of the museum’s East Fortune home. It features other objects that help to tell the story of the R34, including its large bowplate and altimeter dial, binoculars and a camera used on the flight as well as a bottle of brandy taken on board for medicinal reasons. The exhibition also includes a piece of the linen fabric from the airship’s outer cover, part of one of the internal gas-bags and a piece of girder from the airship. Visitors can see a memorial to the flight, and can recreate the flying experience of the record-breaking giant in an R34 flight simulator. This July, the museum will display additional archive photographs of the R34 and will conduct a number of 20-minute talks about the epic journey.

Ian Brown, assistant curator of viation at the National Museum of Flight, with a camera used on the R34 airship’s record-breaking trans-Atlantic flight from East Fortune to Mineola, Long Island in July 1919. Photo: Phil Wilkinson via NMS

Ian Brown, assistant curator of aviation at the National Museum of Flight, said: “It’s extremely exciting to have Reverend Jones’ letter returned to East Fortune, where it was written exactly 100 years ago, before its own double crossing of the Atlantic. It’s a fascinating addition to our collections that gives a first-hand account of the excitement felt by everyone on the ground here at East Fortune about this historic flight. The R34’s aerial adventure was front-page news both in the UK and the USA and demonstrated new technology that many believed would be the future of long-distance travel. We hope that as many people as possible will visit during this centenary year to learn more about her record-breaking journey.”
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